On the afternoon of November 1, 2010, Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.org, marched with his lawyer into the London office of Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Assange was pallid and sweaty, his thin frame racked by a cough that had been plaguing him for weeks.
He was also angry, and his message was simple: he would sue the newspaper if it went ahead and published stories based on the quarter of a million documents that he had handed over to The Guardian just three months earlier. The encounter was one among many twists and turns in the collaboration between WikiLeaks—a four-year-old nonprofit that accepts anonymous submissions of previously secret material and publishes them on its Web site—and some of the world’s most respected newspapers. The collaboration was unprecedented, and brought global attention to a cache of confidential documents—embarrassing when not disturbing—about American military and diplomatic activity around the world. But the partnership was also troubled from the start.
In Rusbridger’s office, Assange’s position was rife with ironies. An unwavering advocate of full, unfettered disclosure of primary-source material, Assange was now seeking to keep highly sensitive information from reaching a broader audience. He had become the victim of his own methods: someone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange—that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission. Enraged that he had lost control, Assange unleashed his threat, arguing that he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released.
The Guardian partnership was the first of its kind between a mainstream media organization and WikiLeaks. The future of such collaborations remains very much in doubt. WikiLeaks, torn by staff defections, technical problems, and a crippling shortage of money, has been both battered and rejuvenated by the events of the past several months. A number of companies—PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard—stopped acting as conduits for donations, even as international publicity has attracted high-profile supporters and many new donors. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a close associate of Assange’s and a WikiLeaks spokesman, promises that WikiLeaks will pursue legal action against the companies. Although it is not known where the instigation came from, hackers launched a wave of sympathy attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard operations, and temporarily shut them down. Assange himself, arrested in December on behalf of Swedish authorities for questioning in a sexual-assault investigation, spent time in a British prison before being granted release on bail. At press time, he awaits a decision on extradition and, in the meantime, must wear an electronic anklet, must check in with authorities daily, and must abide by a curfew. Some are pressing the U.S. government to take action against him under the Espionage Act or some other statute. Whatever the fate of WikiLeaks itself, the nature of the Internet guarantees that others will continue to step into its shoes. “The WikiLeaks concept will bring about other organizations and I wish them well,” Hrafnsson says, even as he insists that WikiLeaks is “functioning fully” without Assange.
The Guardian wasn’t the only newspaper to work with WikiLeaks. To assist in publishing the first two batches of documents—on the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq—WikiLeaks brought in two other parties, The New York Times and the German newsweekly Der Spiegel. Eventually the group was expanded to include television: CNN, Al Jazeera, and Britain’s Channel 4. For the third batch of documents—the diplomatic cables—WikiLeaks worked with five print publications in a collaboration that was marked by serial delays and considerable mistrust on all sides. (“Everyone’s a cheat,” laments one editor involved in the project, looking back.) But The Guardian was the lead organization from the outset: it came up with the idea of a collaboration with WikiLeaks, and it made the arrangement work. That central role may seem odd to some. The Guardian is relatively small—it’s merely the 10th-largest national newspaper in Britain (behind The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph, and ahead of only The Independent). But it is aggressive and relentless, and performs on a global stage in a way that most bigger British newspapers simply do not.
The paper has come a long way from the old Manchester Guardian, which, as a former editor, Peter Preston, remembers, was read by “a bluff, Presbyterian, gum-boot-wearing do-gooder.” There are still many of those, but they’re reading alongside a younger, internationally minded audience attracted by The Guardian’s left-leaning politics and its influential Web site, which vies for the largest audience of any news site in Britain. And it’s not just Britain: two-thirds of the guardian.co.uk’s readers live elsewhere. Even before WikiLeaks, the paper was running attention-getting stories on subjects ranging from the Pentagon to Rupert Murdoch to British Aerospace.
The partnership between The Guardian and WikiLeaks brought together two desperately ambitious organizations that happen to be diametric opposites in their approach to reporting the news. One of the oldest newspapers in the world, with strict and established journalistic standards, joined up with one of the newest in a breed of online muckrakers, with no standards at all except fealty to an ideal of “transparency”—that is, dumping raw material into the public square for people to pick over as they will. It is very likely that neither Alan Rusbridger nor Julian Assange fully understood the nature of the other’s organization when they joined forces. The Guardian, like other media outlets, would come to see Assange as someone to be handled with kid gloves, or perhaps latex ones—too alluring to ignore, too tainted to unequivocally embrace. Assange would come to see the mainstream media as a tool to be used and discarded, and at all times treated with suspicion. Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years. While the leaks haven’t produced a single standout headline that rises above the rest—perhaps because the avalanche of headlines has simply been overwhelming—the texture, context, and detail of the WikiLeaks stories have changed the way people think about how the world is run. Many comparisons have been made between the leak of these documents and Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. By today’s standards, Ellsberg’s actions look quaint: one man handed files to one news organization. The WikiLeaks documents are as revealing as the Pentagon Papers, but their quantity and range are incomparably greater. And they speak even more powerfully to the issue of secrecy itself. The collaboration of newspaper and Web site was never a marriage—more an arrangement driven by expedience, and a rocky one at that—but it will forever change the relationship between whistle-blowers and the media on which they rely.
Alan Rusbridger, 57, is quiet, rumpled, and understated. His sphinx-like demeanor belies the grab-your-lapel impact of the stories he publishes. An accomplished pianist, Rusbridger is writing a book about learning to play Chopin’s First Ballade. (He has also written several children’s books and a history of the evolution of sex manuals.) Sitting in the glass-walled conference room in The Guardian’s new headquarters, near King’s Cross station, in North London, Rusbridger gathers the staff each morning at 10 to go over the previous day’s edition and discuss what lies ahead. Unlike at almost any other paper, the news “conference” is open to anyone on staff, a democratic gesture that occasionally makes for heated conversation, though mostly the underlings stay quiet. When I attended such a conference, the week of the release of the Iraq War Logs, in late October, Rusbridger spoke so softly that I could barely hear him. One by one he called on his editors to report. “Sport,” he intoned, barely audible. The sports editor said his piece. “Comment,” Rusbridger said, again barely audible. The opinion editor gave a report. The meeting continued along these lines for 15 minutes. Then it was over, and everyone got back to work.
The Guardian came to life in the aftermath of the so-called Peterloo Massacre, in 1819. At least 11 people were killed and hundreds more injured when the local Manchester cavalry attempted to quell an unarmed crowd of demonstrators. John Edward Taylor, a young businessman, saw the violence firsthand and wrote an account that he sent to London by the night train. It was published two days later in the Manchester Gazette. His report, which contradicted the official version, made a big splash. Taylor started the Manchester Guardian two years later.